California offers tribes $100 million to buy back their land

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When he was 10 years old, Terry Supahan’s mother bought him a new bike. Supahan, a member of the Karuk tribe in northern California, had previously only ridden used bikes. A hundred years earlier, the state of California had stolen millions of acres of land from his tribe and over a hundred others. In 1968, the state sent checks to aboriginals to reimburse them. Supahan’s mother used the money she received—about $100, he recalls—to buy the bike, a moment Supahan remembers fondly, but now laughs at. How could a bicycle compare to millions of acres of stolen land?

The check was part of a $29 million land settlement for about 65 million acres of land — two-thirds of the entire state — stolen from Indigenous people. That equates to less than 50 cents per acre, a price unheard of even in the 19th century when the United States began gobbling up Indigenous lands.

Now California Governor Gavin Newsom wants to send more money to indigenous peoples, this time to buy back and keep some of that stolen land – $100 million for nearly 200 tribes. The proposal is part of Newsom’s goal to conserve 30% of the state’s land and water by 2030, with tribal partners playing a crucial role.

“I have instructed our administration to seek ways to help the Indigenous peoples of California access, co-manage and acquire your ancestral lands,” Newsom said during a meeting with the Indigenous Truth and Healing Council of California. State, a group of tribal leaders who examine state treatment of tribes and make recommendations for redress. “Today we are making a down payment on that pledge.”

Newsom’s announcement comes amid an attempt by California to restore relations with Indigenous peoples after centuries of genocide. The effort began in earnest in 2019, when Newsom apologized to Indigenous communities on behalf of the state for California’s long history of violence, discrimination and land theft. The buyout announcement also comes amid the growing back-to-the-land movement, but has drawn mixed reactions from indigenous leaders.

Governor Newsom at the future site of the California Indian Heritage Center in West Sacramento, CA.
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

“It’s a small step in the right direction, but I have a lot of questions,” said Joely Proudfit, a descendant of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Mission Indians and director of the California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center at Cal State San Marks.

For one thing, experts say, the $100 million program could help tribes retain their lands and serve as a pilot for future programs in California and other states. The money could have a big impact on the ability of tribes to protect the environment. On the other hand, it could quickly run out of money and result in little meaningful change, ultimately becoming another empty gesture on the part of the state.

Today, Terry Supahan is executive director of the True North Organizing Network, a social justice group that works with tribes to reclaim land, among other projects. He says Newsom’s proposal is welcome but the state needs to do more. “While I believe the governor’s initiative is an important step in the right direction, it is not enough,” he said. “There are simply too many wrongs that will need to be righted.”

In California, a violent colonial history has left many tribes fragmented and underfunded, and the tribes and the state say returning control to Indigenous peoples to continue stewardship is crucial to protecting and preserving the environment. Indigenous peoples have been recognized as the best stewards of the land in the world. According to the United Nations, although indigenous peoples make up only 5% of the world’s population, their lands contain 80% of the world’s biodiversity.

But there are more than 100 federally recognized tribes in the state and at least 70 unrecognized tribes and communities. California also has some of the most expensive real estate in the country. In a state where the median home price is around $800,000, $100 million just won’t cut it. And previous efforts to return to shore have also proven costly. Recently, the Wiyot Tribe used a $1.3 million state grant to buy back 48 acres of land, while the unrecognized Esselen Tribe used a $4.5 million grant to buy over 1 000 acres of land.

“Let’s face it, it’s California: $100 million isn’t going anywhere,” Proudfit said. “It’s a drop in the bucket.”

With real estate prices so high, it’s worth wondering why the state doesn’t just return the land directly to the tribes. Wade Crowfoot, California’s natural resources secretary, said direct transfer is a mechanism the state is exploring, particularly in the north, where the planned removal of four dams on the Klamath River could create surplus land that could be transferred to the Yurok and Karuk. Tribes. But California owns relatively little land, about 3% of the state, while the rest is more or less evenly divided between the federal government and private owners. Thus, in the absence of large tracts of public land available, and without clear legal mechanisms for distributing it to tribes, a land fund would allow tribes to acquire private property.

River running through hilly green forest with some boats and cars
Fish traps used to catch and document the health of salmon on the Klamath River on the Yurok Reserve.
AP Photo/Nathan Howard

The program, which is part of the governor’s annual budget proposal, will need to be approved by the state legislature in June and will be managed by the California Natural Resources Agency. The governor has released no details on how the money will be allocated and any limitations that may be placed on it. Members of the state’s Truth and Healing Council raised concerns about the proposal creating conflict between tribes competing for limited land and questions about how the money would be distributed to the unrecognized tribes. Crowfoot acknowledges that there are many open questions about how the program works.

“I don’t want to oversell,” he said. “It is complex and unprecedented. There are many things we will learn along the way.

California has a brutal history unique in the history of American colonization. Peter Burnett, the first governor of California, declared in 1851 that “a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race is extinct”. Under Burnett and subsequent rulers, California sponsored militia-led massacres throughout the state, enslaved Indigenous peoples, and attempted to erase their culture. The federal government also stole Indigenous lands through 18 treaties with Indigenous nations that were never honored and have yet to be ratified by Congress.

Under Newsom’s proposal, the money could also be used to help tribes implement climate adaptation programs or hire staff. Michael Hunter, president of the Central California Tribal Chairmans Association and president of the Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians, says the governor’s proposal is a “great concept,” but the challenge will be in execution. Working with state agencies and navigating the bureaucratic process could take years, he said. “Until we track to change the direction the environment is taking, back to earth is just back to earth. But if we do it right, we could reverse the cycle in California,” said he declared.

Hunter, who recently held a rally to urge the state to sign a co-management agreement with the Pomo tribes for the Jackson Demonstration State Forest, encourages the state to transfer as much state land to the tribes as possible. The financial support, he believes, could best be used to help maintain these lands. Tribes, he says, have the solutions to climate change. The state has only to step aside.

Crowfoot, who is not Indigenous, said Newsom’s 2019 apology was “powerfully symbolic” but needed action to become meaningful. The new proposal, he believes, is an example of this action. Crowfoot says he is focused on making this initial funding successful to pave the way for future investments. “I am confident that if this funding proves effective in terms of strengthening tribal leadership on conservation, additional funds will be allocated in the future,” he said.

But California could certainly afford a bigger commitment now. The state currently expects a budget surplus of $45.7 billion, including $20.6 billion in a general fund for discretionary purposes.

Whatever happens, Terry Supahan hopes this proposal will lead to a more significant investment than a new bike.


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